Serving Justice vs. Saving Souls

How Can Christians move past the tension that was never supposed to exist?

Every Wednesday, Amy joins a group that gives sandwiches and clothing to the homeless living in downtown Chicago, where she studies urban ministry. She writes letters to her congressmen, asking them to support the latest anti-trafficking legislation. She’s upset by the gentrification happening in her neighborhood.

Amy’s faith in Christ motivates all these actions. Yet when she sees street evangelists preaching to the crowds on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, she finds their approach distasteful—although, when she stops to think about it, she can’t remember the last time she presented the Gospel to another person.

Young Christians in the ’80s and ’90s may have worn WWJD bracelets, but today’s emerging generation of Christians—like Amy—are more likely to wear TOMS shoes. And it’s a telling portrait—as previous generations dedicated themselves to putting the Gospel into words, the current generation of believers put it into their walk, and it’s a walk marked by justice and social action.

Across the country and around the world, this newer generation has caught a renewed vision for the Christian life as articulated by the prophet Micah—a life characterized by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their God. The Barna Group recently noted the escalating interest in justice and community service as one of six “megathemes” rapidly changing the landscape of the Church in the United States.

But the gravitation toward justice is not only evident in statistics. One only has to look as far as creative advocacy campaigns and the rise of short-term mission trips and holistic service projects to see its far-reaching effects. It’s evident in the daily choices young Christians make, from buying fair-trade products to tweeting humanitarian news from the front lines.

This generation’s passion for justice is, without doubt, something to celebrate. It’s a breathtaking sign that the Spirit is at work, leading young men and women into lives marked by the reigning belief that all of life matters to God, not just the parts we might call “spiritual.”

But in this sincere step toward activism, have other essential aspects of the Christian calling been neglected? As Christians respond to the cries of the oppressed, have they failed to share the life-giving message that is truly good news to the poor?

Every generation is subject to a reactive pendulum that swings away from the perceived shortcomings of the generation that preceded it. As Christians today move away from the overt evangelistic nature of WWJD bracelets, altar calls and “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts, have they overcompensated and swung out of balance to the other side?

As Christians respond to the cries of the oppressed, have they failed to share the life-giving message that is truly good news to the poor?

If Christians are to bridge the artificial divide between evangelism and social action, they must immerse themselves in the Bible’s story of redemption. They must learn from those who have gone before them. And they must see the strength of the diversity of the Church—a company of uniquely called individuals in God’s cosmic mission.

The Story of Redemption

The Bible, at its simplest, is the story of what God is doing in history to make all things new. If Christians are to understand the two-pronged part they’re called to play in seeking justice and sharing the good news of Christ, their first step will be to find their place in that story.

In the beginning of creation, there was no cause for justice because there was nothing imperfect to correct. Likewise, there was no cause for evangelism, because humanity knew its Creator and walked with Him.

But Adam and Eve’s choice to eat from the one forbidden tree upturned both of these perfect realities. The entrance of sin into the world changed everything—including God’s calling for His people. In a perfect Eden, humanity’s only responsibility was to worship God and care for His creation. But in a fallen world, the task would require righting what went wrong. Humankind would have to take up a new charge: social justice, to reconcile the wrongs humans committed against each other; and evangelism, to repair the rift between humanity and its Creator.

The ultimate act of reconciliation, of course, culminated many generations later in Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection would save His created ones from their sins.

Yet the purpose of Christ’s mission goes beyond the forgiveness of isolated individuals. The corruption is widespread in human hearts and social crimes alike—and Jesus is making all things new.

The biblical story that began in the garden ends as the city of God descends to earth from heaven, with a voice declaring, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4, ESV).

In the Bible’s redemption story, God is unmistakably the main character. But He chooses to use His redeemed people as His ambassadors. They are called to take up His mission of reconciling humanity with God, each other and all of creation.

Seen through this redemptive lens, it becomes clear that evangelism and social action are both essential and inseparable aspects of the mission of the Church.

But what does this look like in real life? How can Christians prioritize both without neglecting either?

Fortunately, this generation is not the first to wrestle with these questions. The modern Church stands on the shoulders of men and women who have sought to be faithful to Christ in all aspects of His mission. Their stories may not be known to some, but they have much to teach Christians living in the tension between word and action today.

The Shoulders the Church Stands On

Evangelism and social action weren’t always seen as a matter of either/or. Beginning with the early Church, Christian mission commonly included both Gospel truth and just action.

The book of Acts provides a glimpse of the generous lifestyle of believers who “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). As a result of their social concern, the numbers of those being saved increased daily.

In his classic book The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that this sacrificial and countercultural love is one of the key reasons for the explosive growth of the Church in the Roman Empire. Before the advances of modern medicine, plagues killed millions at a time. Those who could afford it fled the cities to avoid becoming victims. Yet Christians stayed put to care for the sick, in recognition of God’s call to social responsibility.

Then, in the missions resurgence of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western missionaries committed their lives in Africa, Asia and Latin America to make Christ known. They also established schools, orphanages and hospitals that drastically improved the quality of life for those living in the communities they served.

Unfortunately, some of these missionary efforts were tainted by the colonialism of their home countries. The resulting exploitation and abuse is cause for serious repentance.

Yet some positive examples stand out. William Carey, for instance—considered by many to be the “father of modern missions”—was a British missionary to India in the late 1700s and early 1800s who demonstrated a lifelong commitment to both Gospel proclamation and social justice. In addition to his extensive work in Bible translation, Carey was a voice of opposition against Britain’s slave trade. In addition, he advocated against India’s inhumane religious practices—child sacrifice, burning widows to death and mistreating lepers.

God’s mission has never been one-dimensional but rather multifaceted—flowing the full range between words and action, evangelism and justice, truth and service.

While missionaries with this holistic approach have continued to serve in far-flung corners of the world, an unfortunate rift occurred in the American Church beginning in the 1920s. Christians created a fault line and took sides—some advocating the “social Gospel,” with its civic and political implications, and others holding fast to the “fundamentals” of faith, with its emphasis on personal sin and salvation. While both camps could provide biblical support for their stance, both lacked essential aspects of the Church’s mission in their reactionary defense.

This rift remained for decades, with deep-seated suspicion on both sides preventing any real effort to find common ground, much less recover a truly holistic understanding of God’s mission.

A watershed moment for evangelicals came in 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland, where more than 2,500 pastors and leaders from 150 countries gathered for a conference on world evangelization. Time magazine called it “possibly the widest ranging meeting of Christians ever held.”

The 10-day gathering culminated in a drafting of the Lausanne Covenant, outlining a distinctly evangelical theology for mission. Within the 15-point statement, a section on Christian social responsibility confessed the Church had wrongfully considered evangelism and social action “mutually exclusive.” Yet the diverse range of attendees agreed: “Both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ.”

Latin American theologians René Padilla and Samuel Escobar were instrumental in prompting this return to holistic missiology. At the time of the Lausanne gathering, Latin America was at war with itself. Dictatorships and death squads were attempting to stifle revolutionary movements throughout South America by launching scorched-earth campaigns that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians.

In response, some Catholic theologians began advocating for liberation theology, which gave a voice to the oppressed and offered a theological basis for resisting unjust authorities. Many evangelical leaders in Latin America were attracted to this ideology, yet they disagreed with the liberation theologians, who pointed to Marxism as the answer and violent revolution as the means.

As a counterbalance, a group of evangelical theologians developed misión integral, or “integral mission,” which Padilla defined as “a view that regards being, doing and saying as inseparable dimensions of the witness to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”

Padilla hoped this concept would provide a more comprehensive understanding of the Church’s mission, as it affirms the need for sinners to be reconciled to God through Christ, as well as the fact that once an individual has been reconciled, he or she is commissioned as an agent of reconciliation in a hurting world.

Though the term originated in the 1970s in Latin America, “integral mission” has since spread to different parts of the world, where it is known as “holistic mission” or “transformational development.”

And this movement is still alive today. In the Micah Network, more than 500 organizations from 80 countries share the commitment to integral mission. In 2001, members of the network drafted a declaration in which they agreed evangelism and social action were more than just compatible with each other.

“Our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life,” it states. “And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.”

Though many evangelicals in the U.S. haven’t heard of these theologians, missionaries and activists, they owe these men and women a debt of gratitude. These Christians of the past provide believers today with powerful theological language to navigate a divide that was never meant to exist in the first place.

The Diverse Community

To repair such a rift requires a joint effort. God has not called His people to seek justice or do evangelism in a vacuum. He has called them to participate in His holistic mission where they are, in a particular time and place. And through His provision of the local Church, He has ensured they won’t navigate this pursuit alone.

If this generation’s passion for justice is to be sustained, Christians need to link arms—and learn from—brothers and sisters in Christ who lean alternately toward social action and evangelism. Instead of advocating a homogenous community, Christians ought to feel comfortable making the most of their shared strengths in their diversity of age, race, nationality, giftedness, personality and calling.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, for example, Paul described the Church as one body with many parts. Each part of the body, he said, has been given different kinds of gifts, all for the purpose of glorifying God and serving the common good.

If Christians surround themselves with those who are just like them—viewing those with other callings as inferior—they will miss out on the blessing that the diverse body of Christ really is. And if they fail to work together, they risk missing their calling as a vibrant Church that bears witness in word and deed to the good news of Jesus making all things new.

Moving Forward

God’s mission has never been one-dimensional but rather multifaceted—flowing the full range between words and action, evangelism and justice, truth and service. Scripture teaches it, history confirms it and the body of Christ requires it to carry out its mission effectively.

Yet the tension between justice and evangelism needs to be navigated by every generation. So, what can one learn from Christian leaders who are pursuing this holistic mission now?

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, emphasizes the wisdom of cultivating one’s specific area of calling. He encourages Christians to distinguish between the “macro calling” of the Church as a whole and the various “micro callings” to which individuals ought to respond in a particular place for an extended period of time.

While it is good to be aware of a broad range of issues impacting our world, Kinnaman says, “We are not called to respond to every issue that comes to us on Facebook.”

Ken Wytsma, pastor of Antioch Church in Bend, Ore., and founder of the Justice Conference, says justice is more than a mere issue or cause. “Justice makes demands of us in every aspect of our daily existence,” Wytsma says. “It’s something too big for any of us to live up to, which is why we need grace. Grace is what keeps us from falling flat.”

Neither is justice something Christians can assume they understand fully right away. Instead, Wytsma says, God’s people need to grow into justice through patterns of learning and serving through the long run. “We need to make it a lifelong journey,” he counsels.

Diandra Hoskins of OneHope knows the importance of such a lifelong commitment. Hoskins helps bring Scripture resources to children and youth around the world while believing Western Christians should work to bring the same basic rights and material blessings they enjoy to their less fortunate global neighbors. Her work has shown that not all human needs can be seen or measured in quite the same way.

“It is easy to see the impact of three wells being dug,” Hoskins says, “but it is much more difficult to measure the [immediate] impact of the Gospel in someone’s life.”

Still, Hoskins believes it is unloving to withhold the good news from others—no matter how long it might take to see fruit. “We need to remember what Christ has done for us,” she says, “and then extend the opportunity for that kind of transformation to others.”

Missio Nexus president Steve Moore already sees young Christians moving in the right direction. From the vantage point of what is now the largest evangelical mission network in North America, Moore observes, “Next generation workers don’t see a separation between word and deed like their parents or grandparents did. They view mission much more holistically from the start.”

As a result, Moore sees a unique partnership emerging between traditional mission organizations and young, justice-oriented Christians—such as a project currently underway that combines the efforts of an organization that provides clean water and another dedicated to discipleship.
This collaborative approach may be just what’s needed to mend the gap.

The justice generation may still be the next generation. But soon there will be another next generation—and now is the time to set the trajectory for them in the right direction by returning to holistic mission. “When word and deed are meaningfully connected in proper perspective,” Moore says, “we’ll be in great shape to really address the pressing needs of our time.”


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